Violence and Backlash | Facing History & Ourselves
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Violence and Backlash

By examining periods of violence during the Reconstruction era, students learn about the potential backlash to political and social change.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Racism


About This Lesson

The changes in American democracy and society following Emancipation and Reconstruction provoked a violent response from Americans who were opposed to Radical Reconstruction and shocked by the attempt to overthrow white supremacy in Southern society. Centered on Violence and Backlash, Part Five of Facing History’s video series about Reconstruction, this lesson will help to illuminate the violence and terror perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction era. By watching the video and analyzing an eyewitness account of Klan violence, students will understand that significant political and social change often provokes a backlash when large portions of the population do not support the change—and when that backlash includes violence and intimidation, it is corrosive to democracy. 

This lesson is part of Facing History’s work on the Reconstruction era and part of a series of lessons focused on our Reconstruction videos. Use this lesson to engage students in conversations about the effects that violence and terror can have on the choices made by individuals in a democracy. In addition to the suggestions below, see Lessons 10, 11, and 13 in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy for more resources and background information about both the causes and effects of violent backlash to freedpeople and their participation in political, economic, and social life during the Reconstruction era.

  • What made Ku Klux Klan violence possible and acceptable to so many Americans as a reaction to Reconstruction?
  • Significant political and social change often provokes a backlash when large portions of the population do not support the change.
  • Backlash, especially when it results in violence, is corrosive to democracy.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 1 video
  • 3 readings
  • 1 extension activity

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Lesson Plans


Before watching the video Violence and Backlash, it is important to ask students to reflect on the effects of violence and terror on a democratic society and the ways in which that society might respond. Begin this lesson by prompting students to write a short reflection in response to the following question:

How should a democratic society respond to violence and terror?

After students have spent a few minutes recording their thoughts, use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to have them share their ideas with each other.

Show the video Violence and Backlash, pausing at the 7:45 mark. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note-taking:

  1. According to the scholars in the video, to what were the perpetrators of violence during Reconstruction reacting?
  2. What was the Ku Klux Klan? What were the Klan’s goals?
  3. What can you infer from the video about the goals of political violence? What examples of political violence does the video provide?

Debrief students’ responses as a class.

Now that students understand the historical context, give them the opportunity to bear witness to the violence by reading a firsthand account from Abram Colby, a survivor of Klan violence who testified before Congress. It is important to give students the time to confront and respond together to the violence and terror depicted in the primary source document they analyze.

Read Klansmen Broke My Door Open aloud as a class. After reading, use the Wraparound teaching strategy to help the class process the reading together. Students will first share a phrase or sentence from the reading that they find surprising, interesting, or troubling. Close the lesson by asking students to share a single word that describes their experience of reading this testimony.

Extension Activities

After processing a description of Klan violence together, the class can now engage in a deeper analysis of how such violence was possible and permissible to so many in American society in the 1860s and 1870s. Read aloud as a class or in small groups the following analyses by W. E. B. Du Bois and historian Eric Foner:

Then ask the class to consider these questions:

  1. What made Ku Klux Klan violence possible and acceptable to so many Americans as a reaction to Reconstruction and interracial democracy?
  2. What evidence does the film provide to help you answer this question? Record your initial thoughts in your journal.

Materials and Downloads

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